6 tips for creating an innovation culture

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S FILTERING.gifAs companies begin to poke their way out from a recessionary fugue, they are exploring ways to grow. The savvy CIO will be developing techniques to reposition the IT department as a key engine for that growth, rather than as a cost centre, which is where it has traditionally languished.
Growth comes from different sources. Innovation is one of them, and it is key in re-crafting the role of corporate computing. However, senior strategists who try to innovate alone miss the benefit of team thinking. Bottom up innovation is a way to generate new ideas that might not be realised by top-down thinkers. Employees often have unique insights into corporate processes that affect them directly.
How can the modern CIO not only encourage IT professionals to innovate, but also invite suggestions from end users across line of business functions?
Social media is an obvious technical tool to help facilitate the exchange of ideas. Using something like personal blogs or corporate social networking tools can help ideas to bubble to the surface.
Yet, the signs are that technology may not be the problem. Many employees are too scared to make suggestions. Research conducted at the start of this year by Feirong Yuan of the University of Kansas and Richard W. Woodman of Texas A&M and published in the Academy of Management Journal found that employees are often scared of making "unfavourable social impressions" on co-workers. 425 employees surveyed across the US were worried about the career limiting prospects of poking their heads above the parapet.
It is therefore necessary to build a culture of innovation within a company, in which employees understand that their ideas will be rewarded (even if they are not adopted). This requires a sea change in cultures that may have previously been restricted. Consider the following potential approaches:
  1. There is no such thing as failure. Teaching employees that ideas and projects that don't work out our opportunity to learn and refine corporate processes, rather than failures, is critical to making them feel safe.
  2. Partial autonomy. If an employee has a particularly strong idea, then allowing them a form of ownership is important. Who better to lead a project than the person who was passionate enough to have thought about it in the first place?
  3. Back projects with IT resources. Not all ideas require huge financial computing resources to work. Sometimes, a successful skunkworks project can be piloted with relatively little setup time, and off-the-shelf tools that may well be available in free opensource form.
  4. Joining up the dots. When ideas work and result in business benefits, it is important to demonstrate the journey from concept through to realisation, and the eventual effect on the company's health. This will encourage others to step forward with their own ideas.
  5. Sharing is caring. Encouraging departments (including the IT department) to share the intellectual property that they have created, and to draw on appropriate intellectual property from outside of the organisation, such as open source tools, can help to speed and ideas journey from concept to business tool.
  6. Mandate an innovation culture. Work with human resources departments to build the concept of innovation directly into employee job descriptions and human resources handbooks. If employees are officially told to innovate, it will help them to grasp the necessary shift in thinking.
Armed with organisational and management techniques such as these, the IT department can play a significant part in driving innovation through the company, both by empowering its own staff, and opening its arms to a user base which is sure to be replete with useful and productive suggestions.
Stewart Baines

I've been writing about technology for nearly 20 years, including editing industry magazines Connect and Communications International. In 2002 I co-founded Futurity Media with Anthony Plewes. My focus in Futurity Media is in emerging technologies, social media and future gazing. As a graduate of philosophy & science, I have studied futurology & foresight to the post-grad level.